68 area teens complete the Challenge

August 01, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

An article in the Aug. 1 paper about Challenge, a National Guard program, described Steven Jones, 17, as a former drug abuser. In fact, according to his legal guardian, Ricky Oxendine, the teen-ager doesn't use drugs now and never has.

5) The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

"Fighting Fenner" made it. So did former drug abuser Steven Jones.

They withstood 5 a.m. wake-up calls, mud runs and regimented marches with 66 other high school dropouts trying to turn their lives around.

Recently, the teens -- from Baltimore, surrounding counties and Washington -- were proud recipients of completion certificates in the second class to graduate from Challenge, a National Guard Military Youth Corps residential program for youths ages 16-18 at Aberdeen Proving Ground.


"It was very hard," said Brian Swiston, 18, of Joppatowne. "You had to put up with people who didn't care what happened."

Eventually, dissenters were weeded from the group of 115 teens who started the program five months ago.

"Some people can't deal with being told what to do," said Jeff Hoffman, chief instructor of the program. Students are allowed to leave at any time.

"It's very easy to quit," Maj. Gen. Russell C. Davis, commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard, told the teens, their parents and friends, at the graduation ceremony July 22 at APG. "This wasn't summer camp, folks."

The Challenge program, financed by the U.S. Department of Defense and operated by the National Guard, combines community service and daily physical training with 200 hours of basic high school math, reading and writing classes taught by state-certified instructors.

"It's a real shocker for most of them," said Lt. James "Jeff" Coleman, who worked with a Maryland National Guard cadre that is responsible for the day-to-day lives of the students. "I've never seen so many lazy people in my life."

The teens were required to make their beds, clean their barracks and take care of their personal hygiene, chores that some had never done, Lieutenant Coleman said.

He said it was discouraging at times when problems continued, but the 24-member cadre tried to keep it in perspective.

"These are at-risk kids," he said. "They are not products of the Cleaver family [of "Leave It to Beaver"]. . . . You can't expect miracles. You can only hope for improvements."

And there were success stories.

"I'm so proud of him," said Ricky Oxendine, uncle and legal guardian of Steven Jones. "There were a couple of times I thought he wasn't going to make it."

Steven, 17, who dropped out of Patterson High School because he said he just couldn't take it, now plans to become a Baltimore police officer.

The Challenge program -- which is being tested in Maryland and nine other states -- aims to have all its participants pass a high school equivalency test.

Among last week's 68 graduates, 44 earned their GEDs -- a marked improvement over the first class, which ended in February, in which only 10 of 21 graduates received high-school equivalency diplomas.

The number of students completing the program is better, too. The first class started with 130 students. This time, more than half of the 115 initial students remained.

"Parental involvement made the difference," said Mr. Hoffman. "Look at the crowd here today."

An overflow crowd of friends and relatives squeezed into the 200-seat auditorium to watch the students walk down the aisle in blue caps and gowns to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance."

"I had tears in my eyes," said Eva Swiston of her son Brian's achievement. "We had tried so many different things. He just didn't like traditional high school."

Dressed in their Sunday best, those in the crowd sometimes took on overtones of an Arsenio Hall show audience with whoops and arm pumping -- especially when Sharnice Fenner, 18, of Washington, stepped on stage to receive an award -- voted on by the 42-member staff -- as the most improved student. Grinning broadly, she accepted a plaque as Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Johnson, director of the Challenge program, said, "That first -- day, we didn't think she had a chance. We called her 'Fighting Fenner.' "

Vernon A. Sevier, a retired National Guard colonel who is deputy director of the program, chuckled when he spoke of Sharnice. "I wouldn't have bet a nickel she would finish," he said. "She turned out to be a model student."

The graduating teens will have mentors to guide their progress for the next year. Those who received their GEDs also will get $2,200 to continue their education. Others will seek employment.

"I'm going to look for a job as a typist," said Desiree Barksdale, 18, of Baltimore. "I got in too much trouble before. Now I think I've got a little bit of discipline."

Brian Swiston, too, will be looking for work. He's not sure what he'll do, but he promises: "I think I'll be famous one day. Maybe I'll write a book."

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